so. just how babylonian are we?

Malkah doesn’t walk around saying it,  but she thinks we might be the closest thing to Babylonian there is these days. It’s not just pride in the accomplishments of our sojourn over there by the twin rivers. And sure, we still call it ‘exile.’ Captivity.  And yes, ‘Babylon’ represents for us the sacking of Jerusalem (though not all of them), and a major brain drain headed east. It was pretty much the peasants who remained, as peasants generally do—glued to the land—’am ha-aretz—holding the fort, so to speak. But without the fort.

Mesopotamia influences Malkah in ways that Egypt never did. She can feel the twin rivers in her bones. While the Nile just makes her want to run.

Malkah feels at home with the Babylonian calendar, for example. While Egypt has five different calendars all moving at different rates, and sometimes it seems in different directions.

She weeps in the month of Tammuz when Ishtar wept for Tammuz, her lover. She doubles up the month of Adar in leap year just as the Babylonians did. She believes, as the ancients did, that there are  auspicious and inauspicious months, internal and external both.

The chaos of the Mesopotamian ecosystem just feels more like home than the orderly Egyptian one. Tohu va-vohu. The ‘tohu’ being Tiamat, Marduk’s mother, the inattentive chaos he destroyed to rule both Nature and the gods.

He was the ultimate Law and Order candidate.

I blame Abraham, of course. Malkah’s got him deep in her bones too. There it is, where lineage and ecology are all bound up together. Rootedness. Uprootedness. Inextricable.

Saddam Hussein used the ancients of the twin rivers to mold the Iraqi people into a single national People. Whatever else he did, this was, I think, brilliant. And the rebuilding of Babylon was to be the symbol of unity. Saddam wanted to establish the Neo-Neo-Babylonian Empire. And the only thing stopping him … oh… that would be us. The West. Again.

He reenvisioned ‘Babylon’ extending well past Jerusalem. Though maybe not quite to the Nile.

“After all,” he said, “Abraham was Iraqi—so all the land that God gave to Ibrahim belongs of course to us.” He was obsessed with redrawing the map. Both west, and south at the Gulf. And it was that direction that took priority.

We destroyed a very grand dream, didn’t we? But in the process, we didn’t put anything else there in its place. No god to head the Assembly of Gods. No ruler to keep the twin rivers flowing.

Saddam modeled himself on the ancient god, Marduk. Brutally efficient. Got the job done. The other gods then handed him rule over the entire Assembly of Gods. And washed their hands of messy democracy. Too much trouble.

He created human beings as servants to the gods to clean things up and worship them. Build them a city. Babylon, and the Hanging Gardens, and the Temple of Ishtar were the result.

There was also the matter of the Tower of Babylon. Which Saddam was set on rebuilding. He just wanted to be sure he ‘got it right’ in terms of what it really looked like and where exactly to put it in the reconstruction of Babylon. He was almost there when the (first) Gulf War blew into town. The gods were not amused.

We privilege, don’t we, the Bavli Talmud over the Yerushalmi. It seems more cosmopolitan—with tales of the travels of the rabbis back and forth between Mesopotamian and Jerusalem. Nothing like a good buddy road trip to make a precept sink in. Yerushalmi? Boring. Malkah’s a little unclear on this, being more archaeologist and not at all talmudic scholar. But that’s what her Father says.

Malkah’s favorite tale in the bible is that of Esther and Mordechai—a thoroughly Mesopotamian tale. ‘Hadassah, who was Esther to her People,’ I mean, there they are right there: Ishtar and Marduk, and a story of the evil gods trying to take down the system. We just updated the tale and made it our own.

The past is always present, Malkah’s Father used to say. Always, always now. Apparently that was what Saddam thought as well.

And so. Malkah made it to Babylon while Saddam was still rebuilding. She made it to the Temple of Ishtar. And to the spot where Saddam planned to put the Tower. The Tower that would usher in the Neo-Neo Empire.

But no. She didn’t make it quite to Ur despite appealing to the authorities. It seems Saddam had cleverly turned Ur into an off-limits military zone, and parked his fighter jets all around the Ziggurat. If we bombed Saddam’s Air Force, we would bomb the sacred homeland of Abraham himself.

And Malkah just can’t help it.

She longs for the twin rivers, she cries out for Tammuz, she lights a candle for Ishtar, she wonders whether Marduk’s brutality was better than the bloodshed and chaos without him. She wants to climb the Ziggurat of Ur, and walk the lanes between the ancient ruins. She wants to buy a souvenir Moon God Sīn from Terach’s little shop from the boy selling there for his Father… the boy who looks an awful lot like her. ‘She wants, as always, to put the broken pieces together.


mira z amiras

abraham and the idols…digging a little deeper

Well, I grew up with this story—of course the way my Father told it to me. And my teammates, Josh and Sam grew up with it the way their Father told it. And the stories, are close but with significant differences. How do we depict it in our movie where we need it? You probably heard it the Josh and Sam way. Here’s mine first:

Abram, of course, grew up in Ur—the Sumerian pilgrimage town devoted to the Moon God Nammu/Sin. His Father, Terach made idols (the name ‘Terach’ essentially meaning Moon worshipper). The story goes—one day Terach was heading out to market, and asked little Abram to watch the shop. Abram starting playing with the idols, and oops—he broke one. He knew he’d get into trouble for it, and as a result, kept playing and smashed them all. When Terach came home, he of course was horrified.

“What happened?” he asked?

“They started fighting,” the precocious boy said. The gods, after all, were known for their fierce tempers and competitive spirit.

“How could they start fighting if they’re merely made of clay?” Terach said, not having any of it.

And there’s the ‘Aha!” moment for Abraham. That idols could not be gods. And that a unified single principle of God superseded them all. A lovely Just-So story.

Josh and Sam (and probably you) grew up with Abraham smashing the idols on purpose, knowing already that they were false. Still a Just-So story. But I don’t like it. It’s a little too Taliban smashing the ancient Buddhas carved into the mountainside at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. I love Abraham, and I don’t want him being a sociopathic zealot as a child. I’d much rather he discover something transcendent and filled with wonder. It matters.

In other words, I prefer my Father’s telling to yours. And as you know, the movie we’re making honors my Father, so that’s that.

So okay. We’re making a movie, right? An animation. How do we depict this story with few words, and only a few seconds to spare. Can it even be done?

I picture Terach’s shop as a kind of souvenir shop for pilgrims. They can purchase statues and figurines for their altar niches at home, for prayer and meditation. Good. But which gods? Was it only Sin/Nammu or the others as well? And around 2500 BCE what did the gods look like in what we now call southern Iraq? I can picture just Nammu in the shop: very ‘Being John Malkovich’, with all the fighting Moon Gods exactly the same. Is that, perhaps de trop?

I consulted with one of my favorite archaeologists about such questions, and we talked possibilities. Including the business strategies of souvenir shops at pilgrimage sites. We decided that if Terach was a good businessman, he’d have had a number of popular gods for sale in his shop.

And what did they look like? Funny you should ask. In that period, the gods were depicted primarily sitting down, while petitioners and worshippers stood. The gods remained on their thrones. Their eyes and ears were oversized because gods see and hear it all. Their eyes were inset with lapis lazuli—sparkling, bright and the best kind of blue. Upon their heads were markers of their specialties. And Nammu/Sin had the crescent moon upon his head, with the sun disk in the center.

Think of it. Abram playing He-Man and Skeletor with his Father’s idols as they sit upon their thrones. Easy to see how he found the gods unlikely sources of power, rage, and authority if they never even stood up.

I’m not sure we need the scene, but I think we do. Either way, it’s taking us on a journey revisiting a beloved old tale that I’m taking both more seriously these days and less so as well.

—Mira Z Amiras